By John Burn-Murdoch
Next month the 43rd Copa America gets underway in Argentina, and among the sides taking their place alongside the hosts in group A are Costa Rica. Having stepped in as late replacements for Japan, Ricardo La Volpe’s charges will have only days to prepare for the tournament following their participation in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
To many of you reading this, mention of Costa Rica will instantly bring to mind memories of one man, Paulo Wanchope. Now I may be doing some of you a disservice, but beyond the former Derby County, West Ham and more recently Manchester City striker I wouldn’t have thought too many names would leap out at you. For those of you who wish to fill this void in your footballing knowledge, read on!
History in International Football
Although broadly considered footballing minnows by all but the most well travelled fans this side of the Atlantic, La Sele are not taken nearly so lightly within the Americas. Statistically, Costa Rica are the third most successful side in the CONCACAF region behind USA and Mexico, and while this may seem akin to being labelled the third most likely club to win the Scottish Premier League, such a comparison would be harsh on a side who have won their confederation’s tournament on three separate occasions and sit 56th in the latest FIFA rankings, above the likes of Poland and Scotland (not to mention international footballing giants Qatar).
In the 1950s and ‘60s, before football really took off in the US, Costa Rica were undoubtedly second only to Mexico in the CONCACAF region, and can consider themselves victims of Stanley Rous’ Euro-centric World Cup qualification format as they finished as runners-up in their region’s qualification tournament on three consecutive occasions but failed to qualify even once as only one spot was allocated to CONCACAF in the then sixteen team competition.
The ‘70s and ‘80s saw the emergence of other Central American nations as forces to be reckoned with and Costa Rica were somewhat marginalised as a regional force until 1990, when they qualified for their first ever World Cup finals after Mexico were disqualified for fielding an over-aged player in a qualifying match for the Seoul Olympics. Under the guidance of national team striker Marvin Rodriguez, Costa Rica enjoyed a successful debut on the world stage, defeating Scotland and Sweden in the group stage before falling to Czechoslovakia in the round of sixteen.
Since then, they have been competing with the likes of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago for the third CONCACAF spot, and qualified for both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, though failing to make it past the group stages on both occasions.
This will be Costa Rica’s fourth outing in the Copa America, having previously competed in 1997, 2001 and 2004. In 1997, Argentine coach Horacio Cordero’s side picked up only a solitary point against rivals Mexico as they were eliminated in the groups stages. Results included a 5-0 defeat to Brazil where a Barcelona-era Ronaldo struck two and fellow icon Romario was also one the score sheet.
Ten years ago, Brazilian born but Costa Rica raised Alexandre Guimaraes was in charge and under his tenure the side showed a marked improvement, topping a group including modern-day giants Uruguay. Unfortunately, having secured a draw with La Celeste in the group, Guimaraes’ side were drawn against them for a second time in the quarter-finals and this time were on the receiving end of 2-1 defeat.
In 2004, Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto had only briefly been at the helm when the tournament began, and although his side squeezed through the group stages as a ‘best loser’, they were knocked out in the very next round by his country-of-birth.
Domestic Game in Costa Rica
As with many South and Central American domestic championships, the Costa Rican system operates with an opening – Invierno and closing ¬Verano stage, although unlike the Argentinean system; for example, each stage acts as a separate tournament in this case, so there are two Primera División champions each year.
The top flight contains twelve sides who are split into two groups of six. In each tournament, a side plays every one of the other eleven sides once, and then plays each club in their group a further time, giving a total of sixteen fixtures. All twelve sides are then ranked in an overall table based on the total number of points they have accumulated, and the top eight sides go into a play-off format where 1st plays 8th, 2nd plays 7th, and so on. Semi-finals and finals follow, ultimately determining the champions of the Invierno and Verano. Relegation; however is decided based on the final standings in each o the two groups of six, with the bottom side from each going down to the Segunda Division.
Provincial side Alajuelense are the current Primera División champions and won both the 2010 Invierno and 2011 Verano. This takes Alajuelense to 26 domestic titles; five more than Herediano and three fewer than Saprissa who are based in the capital city, San Jose.
The vast majority of Costa Rica’s likely squad members, and certainly all of their more experienced players, are based outside of the country. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas is the first choice ‘keeper for Spanish Segunda Division side Real Albacete, and is considered one the most talented goalkeepers in the CONCACAF region, having established a first team place with domestic giants Saprissa at the tender age of eighteen.
In front of Navas Costa Rica’s defence is arguably the strongest section of their team and boasts a wealth of international experience. Between them Junior Diaz, Gilberto Martinez, Michael Umaña and Roy Miller have over 170 caps and will look to build a defensive platform on which the rest of the team can build.
In midfield La Volpe is not short of talent and four Europe-based players to call upon, including one-time wonderkid Cleso Borges. A number of domestically based players could also feature in this area of the pitch, chiefly Cartaginés’ 27 year-old Randall Brenes, who already has three international goals in ten appearances.
Upfront is arguably the most recognisable name of the current set-up, Alvaro Saborio. FC Twente striker Bryan Ruiz could also feature, and Russia-based Marco Ureña can expect to play a part, having impressed early in his international career.
Players to Watch
Once courted by the likes of Manchester City and Werder Bremen, Celso Borges was something of a teenage prodigy. Now aged 23, the playmaker has enjoyed two very successful seasons in Norway with Fredrikstad FK and is said to be looking to move to a bigger club. Possessing excellent technique and a wonderful range of passing, Borges will be integral to Costa Rica’s attacking success.
Christian Bolaños is another based in Scandinavia, currently playing for Danish gianst FC Copenhagen. With Champions League experience to his name, the tricky right winger could be a real threat for Costa Rica in the final third and his crossing will be key if the likes of Saborio are to flourish.
Alvaro Saborio will be familiar to Bristol City fans, the 28 year-old having spent a brief loan spell at Ashton Gate in late 2009. A powerful centre forward with a good goalscoring record at both club and international level, Saborio will carry a weight of Costa Rican expectuon to Argentina next month and will be looking to score the goals to take his side through from a very tough group.
Twitter – @jbm64